Washington - June 5th -2037.
President Merle Robinson hands shook, so he slid them under the lacquered desk. From the floor, the eye of the bald eagle watched him impassively. “Damn you. What are you looking at?” he hissed, between fat lips.
A soft rap on the door, it opened and the shaven head of an agent poked around the jamb. “Ambassador Ying, of the Asian block, is here, sir. Are you ready to see him?”
Merle rubbed his at his weary eyes with large, shaking hands. On seeing the look on the agent's face, he concealed his hands under the table, quickly. “Yes. Send him in.”
The agent nodded and the door closed with a soft click as he disappeared.
Ambassador Ying entered, soon after. A small man, with a loose fitting suit of charcoal grey. His short, black hair stood to attention, flecked here and there by strands of grey.
His dark eyes scanned the mural of the eagle as he crossed the floor. His blank face revealed little emotion. He stopped, and stood still when he reached the edge of the desk. His eyes rose, gauging the president.
Merle rose, offering a hand to the Ambassador.
Ying regarded the shaking hand, as one would a rabid dog. Instead of taking the offered hand, he bowed, his head nearly touching the deep stain of the wooden desktop.
Feeling an uncomfortable burning in his stomach, Merle retracted the hand and sat down. He gestured Ying to sit.
Ying sat, his gaze never leaving the bald Merle. “It's a pleasure to meet you President Robinson.” He shifted his weight to get comfortable.
“Likewise,” Merle drawled, “now where shall we start?”
Ying leaned back, he stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I feel it my duty to tell you, I bring bad news.”
Merle brought his hands onto the desktop, where they beat a random rhythm on the aged wood. “Bad news?”
Ying turned his attention to his trousers, he brushed at some imaginary piece of lint. “Emperor Tung-si is recalling the debt you owe, with immediate effect.”
Merle laughed, a dry rasping laugh. “No can do. That amount of reimbursement would bleed this country dry. Ambassador Ying please inform the Emperor that we will pay back the debt when we have the funds.”
“Most unfortunate Mr. President, bit our most gracious Emperor will not take no for an answer.” Ying clasped hands around his knees and leant forward, ever so slightly.
“Well he'll just have too,” snorted Merle.
Ying remained silent, a nervous tick flickered under his right eye.
Both men locked eyes. “Well?” Merle finally spoke.
Ying unlocked his fingers, his gaze level and unwavering. “You're show of insolence is noted. You have forty-eight hours to comply.” As he finished, he rose and bowed. With just the whisper of his shoes filling the room, he left.
Merle steadied his shaking hands. Bile rose from the pit of his stomach, making him gag. He pressed the inter-comm. “Get me finance, now.” The skin of his face felt taut, not his own.
The Station - Alltime.
He stretched out long, thin legs, and slid down into a slouch on the rocking-chair. A fly buzzed round his sallow face and such was his malaise, he didn't even have the energy to swat it away. The warped boards of the porch squealed, as he set the chair rocking.
A sliver back gorilla ambled out the door of the weather beaten cabin, the timber boards squealed louder as the weight of its hairy body sidled out to crouch beside the man. Content, the gorilla preceded to shove a thick, black finger up a nostril. Intent on some foreign body within his nasal system, the gorilla stared out over the Desert of Eternity, his eyelids drooping. “There's someone coming, Theodore.”
From under his beaten Stetson, Theodore grumbled something. After a moment he pushed up the colourless hat and glanced out over the land of hardy shrubs and reddish dust. “You having a bet, Joshua?”
“Suppose,” Joshua answered, half-heartedly.
“Don't get all excited, or anything. What you betting?”
“It's always a banana. You know I hate those squishy, stringy things.”
“What you betting, then,” he said, getting a little heated.
One thing you don't need when you man a station on the desert of eternity is an angry gorilla, so in his most sincere voice, Theodore laid out his wager. “I'll bet you a cool bottle of pop. No two cool bottles of pop.”
“Done,” Joshua said, a beacon of calmness now. He liked pop.
“Oh, I get to go first?”
“Of course, I went first last time.”
His black brow furrowed, deep thought filled his eyes. “Suicide, I'll go for suicide.”
“You went for that last time,” argued the thin, unshaven man.
“Nothing in the rules says I can't use it again.”
Theodore released a breath of hissing air. “Just where is this mythical rulebook you keep referring too.”
Joshua tapped a broad finger, with a chipped nail, off his skull.
“Handy that,” mused Theodore, “I'm going for... let me see... Death by his own people, in a row over religion.”
Joshua turned his immense head to regard his keeper. “Very precise?”
“Intuition, my boy, intuition.” He tapped his forehead, with a long, dirty nailed finger.
The stranger struggled up to the porch. His four arms hung limp at his side, one egg-shaped eye blinked at the odd pair. He was naked from the waist up, his torso a well honed slab of muscle. Ragged breaths snorted from his nostrils.
“G'day stranger,” Theodore chirped. “You're wondering where you are?”
The stranger spat into the red dirt. “I'm dead, that's what I am.”
“Never a truer word spoken. Never seen one of your kind afore. What breed you'd be?”
“Pixallian,” he replied, his defiance fading as his worse fears were realised.
“Pixallian, hmm. Let me see, you created a religion on your planet and your people killed you, am I right?” Theodore sat up, his bony hands gripping the rail of the porch.
“Nearly. A priest from the outer worlds landed on my planet. I was listening to his teachings, they really hit a chord with me. All of a sudden some members of my tribe came upon us. The last thing I remember is a spear piercing my ribs, then everything went black.”
Theodore shot a hand out towards Joshua. A banana slapped into the palm of his hand. With the ease of someone used to the task, Theodore tossed the fruit into a box filled with blackening bananas.
“Give him a guide map, Joshua.”
“Something fishy going on. That's the tenth time in a row you won,” the gorilla muttered, before stomping into the cabin.
“It's pretty straightforward. Straight ahead till you meet the signposts, there'll be someone there to meet you. Ah, here he is.”
Joshua rumbled over the dusty boards and shoved a laminated square of parchment into the tall man's hand.
Theodore frowned at the lack of manners, but decided against saying anything to the churlish simian. “Here's a map. As I said, you really can't miss it.”
The Pixallian took the offered map and shoved it into the back of his loincloth.
“Thanks, I think,” he croaked, before setting off.
“Really, Joshua, do you have to be so rude when we have company.”
Joshua sat in silence, his finger probed the left nostril.
Theodore twisted his lips in disgust.
Later another figure appeared on the skyline, small and squat. His robes flew out like black wings in the desert wind. Theodore narrowed his eyes at the newcomer.
“Wanna nuther bet?” he asked the sulking gorilla.
Joshua turned, noticing the black form staggering across the bleak landscape, his eyes lit up. “Yeah, but different this time.
“We have to guess its previous occupation.”
“Fine by me. Priest.”
“Hey that's mine.”
“No it's not. It was my turn to go first.”
“You're a dirty rotten cheat, Theo, and a... cadaver.” He stretched to his full height and drummed his fists of his chest. Then he stropped off into the gloom of the interior.
He always calls me Theo when he's angry. Theodore lifted his stiff bones out of the chair. He went inside. Joshua lay on the cot, a thin blanket pulled up to his chest. He sucked the thumb of his right hand. Theodore collected one of the maps, and took one fleeting look at the rocking gorilla, before leaving. Joshua kept his gaze on the worn timber of the wall.
Theodore rocked in the chair once more. The black clad figure sped past. “Hey! Don't you want a map,” he shouted after the receding figure. The priest never turned, just kept on walking in those short, hopping steps of his. “Religious, always think you're a step above everyone else. You didn't fool the Pixallians. Go on, scuttle on, you might catch up on your one and only follower.” His voice echoed over the desolation.
Washington - July 4th – 2037-Morning.
Merle slammed down the receiver, his face purple with rage. “On Independence day, the bastards.”
Cynthia looked up from the paper, her glasses slipped down to the end of her nose. “What's wrong, Dear?”
He rubbed frantically at his face and up over the wide expanse of his bald head. “The fucking Asian Block are pushing into Alaska. Things are getting a little hairy up there.”
The glasses slipped from her nose and bounced on the deep carpet. “Merle this is bad, bad.”
“You think I don't know that?” he snapped, instantly regretting his harsh tone.
“There's no need for that.”
“I'm sorry honey, it's just... it's the damned pressure, and now I've got an invasion on my hands.”
“Do you have to go?”
He sighed, “Yes, just for a few hours. I'll cook that special dinner when I get back, promise.” He walked over and kissed her on the forehead.
“I can get it started, if you want.”
“No honey, you just leave everything to me, it'll be real special.” The smile was weak, forced. Grabbing his jacket, he left.
The Station – Alltime.
Theodore seen him coming from the direction of the signposts, a being of pure light, a thought. “Joshua, get out here,” he shouted through the open door.
“Dun wanna,” came the garbled reply.
“It's one of the bosses!”
Joshua padded out, his eyes bloodshot, and took up position at the rocking -chair's side.
“Sorry,” Theodore said, through gritted teeth.
“S'alright,” he sniffed.
They held hands up before their faces as the glare of light lit up the pitted boards of the shack. Light seeped into their skin, and the bones of their hands were clearly visible in the blaze. “Been a long time, boss. Not since the Black- Death, I think.”
“About that.” The voice sounded like the blare of trumpets. “Bit of trouble down at the gates. The Priest caught up with the Pixallian. He can come in, but the Pixallian has to cool off in purgatory for a century, or so.”
“Can't the angels sort it out?” Theodore twisted his head around in a vain attempt to escape the blinding light.
“They tried, but that guy's got four arms?”
“You need Joshua, here?”
“It'd be a help.”
“Joshua?” Theodore asked, his eyes narrow slits.
“Sure thing, lead the way boss.”
The being of light moved off, with Joshua scampering behind.
“Whew.” He blinked his eyes, trying to get them working again.
“You gonna come over to my side?”
The velvet voice ran along his spine, eliciting a sudden shiver. “I told you afore, I'm neither good nor bad. This here's my place. You just missed the big cheese.”
He rose from the dirt in front of the cabin, midnight black and indistinct. “No I didn't.”
“So what you say. Leave the ape here, he can handle it.”
Theodore barked a harsh laugh. “Joshua! He'd sit here picking his nose and looking blankly at the drifters shambling by. You still got the hunter who shot him?”
“For eternity, and then some.”
“Did you tell him he shot the only gorilla who developed speech?” He rubbed the spines of stubble that coated his chin.
“Everyday, with relish. You should see his face. In fact if you came and worked for me, you'd see it everyday.”
“Nice try, Satan.” His bones creaked as he eased into the turned wood of the chairs back.
“You might change your mind, shortly.” With that message he folded back into the red dust, and was gone.
Washington – July 4th – 2037 – Evening.
Merle stirred the pot of soup, tears streamed down his face. He spooned the hot, meaty liquid into white bowl. With a dab of his apron, he wiped tears from his eyes and headed for the dining room.
Cynthia smiled as he entered. It was short-lived. “What's wrong Merle? Have you been crying?”
“Fuckin' onions,” he mumbled.
“Sorry Hon. Here's your soup, drink it while it's hot.”
“How did work go today?”
“Oh, I gave the boys a buncha' codes, that should sort out the mess.”
“That's nice dear. The soup's lovely.”
Merle winced as he forced the spoon into his mouth. He swallowed, hard, and released a breath. Thank God. “Thanks, Honey. You eat it all up now.”
“Merle, quit acting like my Father.”
They both laughed.
The Station – Alltime.
Theodore watched the couple wander over the wasteland, they leaned into each-other for comfort and strength. “Pity Joshua wasn't here, he'd win the bet.”
The sound of pounding feet came from behind. A dark shape rushed up the wide, worn path, its eyes intent on the incoming pair of recently deceased.
“Bet?” Joshua panted.
“No bet, not this time,” Theodore said, solemnly. "How'd you get on with old four arms?"
“Three now." He grunted. "Ya can't do this to me, Theo, you can't.”
When he said Theo, it sent up a red flag. What the hell. “Alright. One bottle of pop. Name it.”
“One? Cheapskate. Suicide.”
“What am I getting out of this?”
“Two bananas,” he said, holding up three fingers.
“Wonderful,” he sighed. “Lovers tiff. They both shot each-other.”
The two wandering souls trudged up to the porch, their feet sending small storms of dust around their heels. “G'day lovers, you looking for directions?”
The man kept casting backward glances, like something followed on their heels. The woman spoke, in a tiny voice on the edge of hysteria. “Where are we? I don't understand.”
Theodore nodded to the open door and Joshua bounded through the opening. “I'm afraid you're dead, my dear. Now if you just keep going straight, you'll come to the signposts. Someone will be there to greet you.”
She started wailing, huge, lung-bursting wails, the man seemed oblivious to her distress, his attention on their rear.
“Now, now. Let's just calm down. You look a god-fearing woman, you'll end up in Paradise.”
The wails petered off, replaced by sniffles and a low moan.
“What about your...”
“Husband,” she sniffed, dabbing at an eye with the end of a sleeve.
“Was your husband religious?”
“He was, till he poisoned us at dinner tonight.”
“Suicide,” whooped Joshua.
“Shit,” spat Theodore.
The woman stared wide-eyed at the pair.
Theodore clipped Joshua with his hat, the dust formed a cloud round the ape's head. “What the hell do you think you at. I'm sorry madam, he's not house trained yet,” he explained, handing over the maps.
She snatched them, turned up her nose and walked off. The man remained, looking out at the thin line of the horizon. “C'mon, Merle, you god-damned murderer.”
“Coming, Honey.” He rushed to join her side.
She threw an arm around him, pulling him close. “Christ! Merle you could have told me.”
They walked off, Merle offering his apologises, Cynthia nodding sympathetically.
“Where's the pop?” Joshua pleaded.
“In an ice-bucket ’’neath the floor-boards.” He pointed to the inner darkness. “One mind!”
They sat on the weathered porch, Theodore stretched out with his Stetson pulled down over his face, Joshua with two bottles of pop sitting at his side.
“You better take a look at this,” Joshua said, his voice shaky.
Theodore pushed the hat back slowly, stifling a yawn, he lazily searched out over the Desert of Eternity. What greeted him, brought him to his feet.
Shuffling through the sand, the crowd rose a pillar of dust that threatened the sun itself. Countless forms of despairing souls searched their surroundings. The vanguard of the mass trod wearily into their midst, a look of confusion and dread painted on their ashen faces.
“Joshua gather as many of those maps you can,” he croaked, “and when you're in there, strike Earth of the list.”
He watched them huddle before the front of the porch, and then looked out over the desert. They still came. Maybe I will take Satan up on that offer. “G'day peoples. Now if you just keep going straight ahead...